The original Expendables was something of an anomaly when it was released back in 2010. The action genre had settled into a safe, PG-13 niche of bloodless mayhem, and many of the films’ stars with the exception of Sylvester Stallone had all but disappeared from the public consciousness. Even so, it was impossible to resist the idea of a film where Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all shared a scene together. While the film ultimately had one such scene, the idea of bringing a team several action heroes together proved to be a fruitful one, creating a fun, if occasionally overtly self serious film that made a killing at the box office. With an even more financially successful, and in my opinion far more enjoyable second film under their belt, all the cards seemed stacked for yet another fun ride with this third one.
Then the PG-13 virus struck…
Fans were outraged to learn that in an attempt to make more money off of the next generation of action junkies, this film would forego the ultra violence of the previous two. Many believed that this change would take away from what has made this franchise enjoyable to begin with. Were they right? Let’s see…
We pick up the action with Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and the rest of the expendables, which include characters portrayed by Jason Statham, Randy Couture, and Dolph Lundgren, breaking Doc (Wesley Snipes), another gifted mercenary, out of a prison train. They need his skill set to find an arms dealer, and the destructive weapons he’s selling. They get more than they bargained for in this dealer, who turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), one of the founding members of the expendables with a deep grudge against Barney. When he critically injures Cesar (Terry Crews) in his first scuffle with the group, Barney takes it upon himself to take down Stonebanks, but without the help of his team, who he fears will perish in the action. Instead, he takes it upon himself to seek out a new, younger team, and from there, more silliness and explosions ensue!
What made the other two installments in the franchise so much fun was the machismo interactions between these action legends, particularly Stallone and Statham. However, this film almost seems obsessed with avoiding that virtue in favor of bringing in new blood. This is the movie’s most critical failure. When we are focusing on the people we want to see, which comes in the first and third acts, it’s a serviceable action flick, when it isn’t, it’s borderline godawful.
Starting out with the parts that work best, all of the returning cast members are a lot of fun. It’s clear that these guys have become at least somewhat close over the course of these movies, and that really comes across when they are interacting. Even someone like Randy Couture, who seemed out of place and uncomfortable in the original, is having fun here. All the dialogue between this group is either beautifully hammy (looking at you you Arnold) or genuinely funny. Also, the new additions that are legitimate actors, and not just bags of meat (more on that in a moment) all do a great job. Snipes brings a nice air of cool to the team, Antonio Banderas is full of humor and boundless energy as an overly enthused man who lives for adrenaline and conversation, and Harrison Ford actually seems somewhat involved in the standard mission briefer role that Bruce Willis completely phoned in (a fact that the movie is all too aware of, dissing his character several times).
However, there is one standout show stealer here, and that is Mel Gibson. Regardless of how I may feel about his personal affairs, there is no doubt that he is a firecracker on film, and it’s great to see him back in his wheelhouse. This is by far the most ruthless, sympathetic, and snarky adversary this series has had so far, and Gibson relishes in it. There’s one scene in particular in the team’s caravan, where he verbally assaults Stallone after being captured that just might be the best single scene the series has had thus far.
The problem is, the film isn’t actually about any of these incredible personalities. Instead, it sidelines them for a crop of utterly bland meatheads that Sly recruits on his mission. This group includes Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell, and Victor Ortiz. In other words, people you do not care about. Seriously, would it have killed them to at least get some young people with some name recognition? All of these guys are completely bland, as many of them are not actors anyway, but athletes. They have no camaraderie, and as such, there’s not that Jason Statham type to ground things and for Sly to work off of. Rousey comes off the best, sporting some genuinely bad ass action moves, but it ultimately it doesn’t make much of a difference. We have to spend the entirety of the second act with characters that we do not care even a little for, and that really cripples what little story this thing has going for it.
Now let’s get to the elephant in the room, the action. Does the PG-13 rating cripple the fun of these massive shoot em’ up sequences? Well, yes and no. On one hand, there’s a very apparent lack of blood, particularly when people are getting shot with a chain gun, and there’s just mist everywhere, and there’s a lot of very annoying cutting around several deep impacts and blade wounds. On the other, the scale of the action hasn’t been dialed down one bit. These are still huge explosion factories where hundreds of nameless goons are mowed down, and especially when our main players are involved, the sense of fun is still at least somewhat palpable. In fact, the extended climax where both teams take on an entire army in a building that Gibson has rigged with C4 is pure blissful silliness in the most enjoyable sense. Hopefully we will see an unrated version on Blu-Ray and this whole PG-13 thing will just go away. Otherwise, I’m a tad worried about director Patrick Hughes tacking the remake of The Raid.
What really hurts these action sequences is not the rating, but the really shoddy production value. Sure, all of the physical stuff is still fairly crisp, but my god, did all of the explosions and massive practical effects take a hit. In fact, I shouldn’t even use the term practical effects, because all of those lovely explosions that were done practically before have been replaced with CGI here, and it looks godawful. I have honestly seen student films with explosions that look about the same. It’s video game cutscene level bad, each moment crying out for two or three more renders. In fact, the big escape moment towards the end of the film flat out looks like a cartoon.
As a whole, while The Expendables 3 is not a total loss, it squanders several elements that made the previous two so much fun. We just don’t get enough time with the people who we actually came to see, and their replacements are just lumps on a log. That combined with some godawful production moments, and tame, if still decently fun action makes this by far the weakest Expendables adventure thus far.
Honestly, next time just make a movie about Sly and Statham getting a beer, that would be far more interesting.